Here’s where my life on the road began: at five, my mother took me to Hancock Airport in Syracuse, NY, and put me on a plane to MacArthur Field on Long Island. The plane was impressive, like a giant tin toy. My little legs climbed the stairs in the cold night air, then I entered the tube of the plane, where a stewardess in a trim uniform and bright lipstick smiled wide as a lazy moon. She took me to a seat. The plane’s engines started up and the propellers whirred and rattled. I was the only child aboard.
During the flight, the stewardess took me to the cockpit. It was magical, the view through the windshield, the reflection of all the lights and dials glowing the data twice, the handsome pilots in starched white and sturdy caps. I think they gave me wings.
When we arrived back on earth, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and towards the small terminal with the stewardess, where I was met by my birth father. I was there to fulfill his visitation rights. I don’t remember how long I stayed before I did the trip in reverse, minus the tour of the cockpit, and returned to my home, my mother, my stepdad, and my baby sister, my life.
This was the only time I made the journey by plane until I was 16, again flying to put in time with my father of origin.
By the time I was seven, it had been agreed that I was to spend every other holiday with my father; biannual Christmas visits and in the off years for that holiday, I was shipped to him for Thanksgiving and Easter. I also had several weekends during the school year that I made the journey, and two weeks each summer.
To save money, always the case with my father, I started traveling on the New York Central to Grand Central Station. The tracks were so close to the Hudson that, in the winter, I feared the train would slip the rails and we would pummel into the cold water. I didn’t know how to swim. I worried I would die. I moved away from the window. I was alone, the rhythm of the train rocking me out of my worry.
By this time, my father had remarried. I had to assimilate into a new family, his in-laws. I had grown a new family with my mom and stepdad, who will be known as Daddy from now on. My birth father will always be only that. I was four when Mommy married Daddy. My first sister came not long after that. With that marriage, I gained new aunts, uncles, cousins, my wacky Grandpa Chris, and my beloved Grandma Anna. And now, my new stepmother’s clan was to be mine, or so was the expectation. I hardly knew her but I was supposed to adjust immediately to her family tree.
The first Christmas with that stepmother seemed sparkly. My stocking was huge, I got a giant doll that later came to spook me at night during my summer visit. She was just too close to my size and her eyes were always open.
That marriage failed a couple of years later. But not before the winter that stepmother #1 taught me to knit, or so she thought. I was thrilled. I stepped back onto the train to return home with a ball of white yarn and a pair of blue aluminum knitting needles, probably size 8, same as my age. A row of stitches was cast onto one of them. I slid the stitches back and forth, confident in my skill and fully engaged for a long time. I remember showing the conductor I was knitting, very proud of myself. We rode up the Hudson and along the Mohawk; I slid the little white loops back and forth with precision, but never looping the yard to add a row. I forgot that part of the process. It didn’t even dawn on me until what seems like hours later, when I realized that my project was not any longer than when the train pulled out of Manhattan. My mother, a skilled knitter herself, showed me again and I have been knitting ever since. I still love counting the stitches over and over, as the one long strand loops into a sweater or a tea cozy, the yard wrapping through my fingers, the consistent click and swoosh of needles against each other.
Eventually, my father married a third wife, a woman I just love. She was from a huge family, her parents Italian immigrants. It was overwhelming and joyous. A remarkable number of names to learn. I also had to reacquaint myself with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins on my father’s side each holiday. I never really felt like I belonged in any of these families. I was always painfully disconnected in those gatherings and so very far from what my siblings and parents were doing.
By this time, I was riding Greyhound, the cheapest option yet. That suited my father even more. At least an 8-hour trip into the Port Authority, if weather permitted. It was torture, especially the one year it snowed so hard the trip took 11 hours and the drunk sitting next to me passed out and slept all the way to Albany with his head on my shoulder. I pressed my face against the freezing, wet window just to try to pull away from his stale breath. I was 10.
It was even worse after my mother died. Being away from my brother and sisters was horrid. I don’t know if they even remember that I was not there half of our holidays each year. I don’t know why any of this was ever permitted, actually, but that can never be answered. Suffice it to say, it was another time, things were different.
When in I was in high school, life changed dramatically again, when Daddy fell in love. Finally healed from my mother’s death, he met the woman who would become his second wife (my third stepmother). She came into our lives with another family, another tradition to uphold, a whole new circumstance to learn.
I have been immersed in blended families for decades before the term was ever coined. I have been looking for the context of family my whole life. I believe myself to be among family but the constructs of the relationship always change for me, even as an adult. As the unmarried one in the family, I used to spin circles to visit all the different houses of my family members, and then sometimes those of the families of the men I might be dating. When I bought my house, I stopped traveling on Christmas. No public transportation. No being in a corner of the room with people I know but am not always sure that I fit in. I spend Christmas in my own home and others are welcomed to visit me. Here, I am at peace, with my gleaming Christmas tree, and my knitting needles in hand. Maybe next year, I will buy an airplane ornament to nestle into the branches.
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